The soft blue glow from the screen of a cheap alarm clock is the only source of illumination in the room. It’s 2:44 am, and Trevor, nine years old this past April, is awake for the dozenth time this night.
He’s surprised he’s able to fall asleep at all, after what happened three nights ago in this very room, but it seems biology takes full control at a certain point even as the mind, straining and humming with constant anxiety and terror, puts its full might into keeping the body keen and awake and primed for survival. He sleeps for minutes at a time now, sometimes an hour or two, before the memory of the very real danger 30 inches beneath jolts him out of that bliss.
Every kid who’s ever slept alone in a dark bedroom is familiar with the irrational fear of what might happen should a stray arm or a foot breach the outer limit of the twin mattress on which they sleep. If the sort of unknowable creatures that can only be conjured up by the elixir of a child’s imagination spiked with fear were to materialize in the real world, it would certainly happen underneath the bed. And what else would such a creature have to do in those long nights, besides wait for that perfect moment of inattention to grab a limb and pull you directly into its undoubtedly gaping, tooth-filled maw?
Trevor never found the concept of closet monsters particularly alarming. His closet was small, and shallow, and usually left with the doors wide open, revealing nothing but winter jackets, boxes and outgrown toys. There were precious few shadowy nooks in there. Nary a spider was ever glimpsed in that alcove. But the netherworld under the bed… that was different. The space was barely tall enough for Trevor to squeeze his head into. It was dusty, and cluttered, and so dark even the brightest of daylight couldn’t penetrate very far. Anything could be down there. Trevor couldn’t resist letting the fear of that under-bed run away with itself sometimes, even though he was always aware that it was just imaginary kid stuff.
Until three nights ago.
He pressed lightly with his thumb against the edge of his chin. It was still sore. Rubbing his ankles together beneath the sheets, he could just barely feel the scabby scratches on his right leg. A couple of light scratches and a bruised chin: the only physical proof that something terrible now lived with Trevor in his bedroom. The only proof that each night had now become a solo battle of wills. But it wasn’t enough.
Recalling the events of that night made Trevor physically shudder. For as long as he could remember, on the rare occasion he would awaken in the night needing to use the bathroom, he had a routine in place: He would lie in bed and tightly close and open his eyes, willing the grogginess away. He would clench his fists and curl his toes. Upon adequately ensuring that his body was operating at full capacity, only then would he vault from the edge of the bed, as far as he could make it, hitting the hard wood floor at a sprint, and slap the light switch by the door, thus guaranteeing safety. After his eyes stopped stinging and the light became a little less blinding, he would always realize how silly it was. But the results were undeniable: He had never, not once, been eaten by a monster from under the bed.
But this particular night, perhaps because of how badly he had to pee, or perhaps out of some evolving sense of newfound maturity, Trevor abandoned his late night acrobatic routine. He awoke, and still groggy, pulled away the blankets and sheets and plopped nonchalantly from the edge of the bed. Then he felt the grip tighten on his ankle. His stomach sank. Gravity vanished. A sharp blow struck the bottom of his chin and made Trevor see stars, and hear nothing but ringing in the ears. He was face down on the floor. An impossibly cold, clammy hand still had hold of his right ankle, pulling. Pain shot up his entire leg.
That’s the last clear memory he has before he finds himself flying into his father’s bed, scrambling to get under the blankets, sobbing and moaning, too afraid to describe what just happened, too afraid to care about the warm urine spreading down the leg of his shorts. He still doesn’t know exactly how he got free of the creature’s grasp. Pure survival instinct overrode his mental functions at that point. Either that, or his mind was simply protecting itself from what he may have seen of the attacker.
Trevor’s father was a heavy sleeper. Six Jack and Cokes a night will do that to you. And this certainly wasn’t the first time his son had come barreling into his bed in the middle of the night after an especially bad nightmare. He didn’t even fully awaken this time, simply rolled over to make space and mumbled, “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK…” as Trevor clumsily tried to explain what just occurred through shuddering tears. He would have no memory of this come the morning, Trevor realized, and just then the adrenaline rush wore off and he passed out.
Thinking back to that following morning, the sequence of events was as predictable as it was agonizing. The look of pity on his father’s face when he realized Trevor had wet the bed. The unmistakable lack of belief that followed. The reassurances and explanations. “Your mother used to hallucinate in the night sometimes.” Of course. “You most likely just got out of bed in your sleep and scraped your leg on the night stand.” Of course. Together they returned to Trevor’s bedroom for a post-mortem investigation of the occurrence, in the reassuring light of day, naturally. His dad lifted up the entire mattress on one side, blankets and all, so together they could see through the slats of the bed frame nothing but thick gray dust bunnies and forgotten toys. Of course. And the following night, the night Trevor was dreading so badly that the long hours of the school day flew right by for the first time ever, his dad tried to provide an extra layer of safety by stuffing spare pillows and comforters into the gap under the bed, so as to close off access to the terrifying unknown.
It actually sort of worked, at first. The more he thought about it, the more Trevor started to think maybe he really did just sleepwalk and hallucinate the whole thing. After all, he was missing the memory of escaping the creature he thought was pulling on his leg. The dust under the bed was undisturbed – he saw it with his own eyes. It’s just… the sensation of being grabbed and pulled was still so vivid. The scratches were there. The bruise on his chin was there. And most crucially – the fear was there.
That next dreaded night passed without major incident. Every time Trevor awoke in a cold sweat, he steeled himself to peek ever so slightly over the edge of the bed to make sure the barrier of pillows and blankets was still there. Just in case, he also crammed everything he could into the crack where the side of the bed met the wall, and lined up stuffed animals along the other edge to make a little fortress.
When morning did arrive at last, Trevor didn’t feel remotely rested, but he felt safe. That was better. Seeing the undisturbed plush barriers in the crisp daylight made him feel both reassured and a little silly. He marched downstairs for breakfast, fairly confident that there was no monster under the bed after all. His father didn’t broach the subject at all, but the way he looked at Trevor as he appeared at the bottom of the stairs seemed to say it all for him: “No monster attacks, eh?”
As that day wore on, he couldn’t deny it forever – the anxiety about the approaching night was increasing with the passing of each hour. He’d seen scary movies on TV that were too gruesome for him, and he’d had nightmares that lingered in the mind long after waking, and both these things generated true fear of being alone in the dark. But this was a different feeling. He simply couldn’t shake the belief that something alive took hold of him and tried to drag him beneath the bed the other night. He pressed the bruise on his chin again.
Whatever measure of reassurance Trevor was able to muster after that second uneventful night evaporated when, during the first of that night’s awakenings, he peered over the edge of the bed to check on the blanket barrier – so very present when he got into bed earlier that night – only to find nothing. He snapped back to the center of the mattress and shut his eyes tight. “It’s late. You’re groggy. Sleep deprived. The room is dark. We’ll let our eyes adjust for a bit and check again. It’ll be there. It’ll be there.” He forced himself to slow his breathing, visually confirmed other details of the room – the Marvel’s Avengers poster, the high wall shelf with its shelf-denizens, the wide open closet door – then slowly crept back to the edge of the bed, making as little noise as possible. He peeked over.
The soft white lumpy mass was indeed there. Trevor let out an involuntary exhale of relief, not realizing he had been holding his breath this whole time. And just then the mass moved. In the split second before he bolted back to the dubious safety of the mid-bed, he noticed that the white lumpy object wasn’t a comforter at all, because comforters aren’t shiny…
Trevor spent that remainder of that night alternating between focused terror and a semi-conscious stupor as his body desperately attempted to shut itself down. The minutes, the seconds, felt endless, to say nothing of the hours. It was 3 am for a week. 4 am for a month. Every time he started to drift off, fever dreams would begin to intrude on the real world. Hallucinations manifested fleetingly into the environment of the bedroom, only to vanish if Trevor attempted to focus in on one. He felt like he was going mad. Perhaps he was?
Morning did eventually arrive after that Longest Night, and by the time Trevor willed himself out of bed, delirious from exhaustion in the bright morning sun, his father was already at work and he had precious few minutes to get ready for school and catch the bus. He didn’t absorb a single thing from that school day – he was too sleep-deprived and too fixated on the question of sanity, of whether he’d ever get a peaceful night’s sleep again. He didn’t even remember getting back on the school bus at the end of the day and making it home. But he does remember hysterically attempting to convince his dad to let him sleep in his room for the night. And mercifully, in spite of his nonsensical blubbering about bed monsters and not feeling safe in his room anymore, dad relented.
Trevor slept more soundly and deeply than he ever had in his life that night. He dreamt of vivid, emotional gibberish, but not about monsters. His father’s snoring and occasional toss and turn didn’t penetrate. But that bliss was shattered when, out of unconscious intuition, Trevor awoke to see that it was just after midnight on the alarm clock. His alarm clock. His father had clearly waited for him to fall asleep and carried him back to his own room. He felt the cold pin pricks of sweat materializing on his forehead, and realized that it wasn’t just fear causing it. He always slept with a loud fan pointing at him during these Summer months. Both the moving air and the white noise it generated were necessary comforts he had become accustomed to in order to sleep, but dad had forgotten to turn it on tonight.
The silence, as the saying goes, was deafening. But what it revealed was worse than Trevor could have imagined. Breathing. From under the bed. Of course. Rapid, raspy breaths, almost more of a pant, previously concealed by the drowning noise of the fan. The creature was hungry.
Asleep, awake. 1:55.
Asleep, awake. 2:15.
Asleep, awake. 2:22.
He couldn’t go on like this. Either he was truly losing his mind, or there actually was a monster under the bed, a predator waiting for another opportunity to strike. Why wouldn’t it just crawl out and attack already? What was it about the nighttime that conjured it into existence? Why did it leave no trace during the day, except the claw marks on his ankle? None of it made any sense. The only thing Trevor could rely on was the unmistakable fear of being in the midst of a fight for survival, a fear no child should need to endure. Whether psychological or physical, whatever the nature of this beast, it would need to be dealt with, tonight.
Leaving bed was a most terrifying prospect that Trevor debated with himself while listening for the soft, raspy, nearly inaudible breathing sounds coming from beneath the bed, that for now had gone silent, which was somehow even more agonizing. Even the old jump-and-sprint move was a risk. This creature proved itself capable of allowing at least some portion of its incomprehensible slithering husk extend out from the gap under the bed. It seemed to not want to come out into the open, but who knows how long its clawed arm could reach?
At length, Trevor decided against the dashing escape attempt in favor of a strategy that was both safer and ridiculously risky, but offered the promise of a definitive conclusion to this psychological torture session.
He yelled for his father.
Knowing how far away the master bedroom was from his own, knowing he was contending with two closed doors and a bottomless whiskey slumber, he yelled loud enough to vibrate the eyeballs in his skull. He yelled until his vocal chords were ribbons. Then he waited…
Just as Trevor was taking the deep breath for a second attempt to summon his father, he heard the footsteps thumping down the hall. Relief washed over him for a split second, to be followed by an adrenaline rush of terror, thinking about the horrible second step of his plan.
He heard the doorknob crack, watched the door swing open and dim light from a distant hallway lamp poured in, framing the silhouette of Trevor’s father. He gestured to switch on the light.
“DON’T TURN ON THE LIGHT!”
His dad paused for a moment with his hand hovering over the light switch, before drawing his arm back, saying “OK… you alright? What’s goin’ on?”
“Just… watch. Can you see me?”
“Yeah I can see you. What is it?”
By this point, Trevor could somehow feel that the creature was still in the room. He could sense its presence. But he also knew that if his father turned on the light and examined under the bed, nothing would be there, and this whole cycle would continue. But if he could lure it out…
He took a deep breath. Sat up, pivoted, dangled his legs off the side of the bed. He took a look at his father, making sure he wouldn’t miss a thing.
His feet hit the hard wooden flooring with a THUD. He closed his eyes tight, clenched his fists and waited for the cold, clammy grip to take him. It was the only way to prove he wasn’t crazy. He just had to hope his father was quick enough to rescue him from the beast.
But of course, no such hand emerged. He opened one eye, then the other, then relaxed his fists. His father still stood in the doorway, wearing an expression halfway between confusion and pity. And Trevor began to cry. This torment seemed destined to last forever. It seemed this creature was too cunning to reveal itself with anybody else watching. Maybe this was the plan – wear the boy down night after night until he was so wracked with paranoia and exhaustion that his defenses were completely depleted, and then simply claim him. Or, he was just crazy, and that was even worse. He stood rooted in that spot and wept. It was all he could do.
Then he heard it. The breath. Hisssss… ahhhh…. hissss… ahhhh… Louder and clearer than it had been earlier.
Trevor’s father was moving toward him now, preparing to comfort his son.
Trevor turned toward his bed, attempting to divine the source of the breathing noise. He turned back to his father, who appeared to be doing the same.
Before either could say a word, a huge, white, veiny hand attached to a slender, slick appendage wrapped itself around Trevor’s father’s entire face and ripped, while the thing it belonged to, a twitching, lumpy knot of pale flesh, obscured in the shadows of the room, emerged from the open closet.